REVIEW: Orca (1977)

There has not been a single verified fatal attack on a human being by a killer whale in the wild. It is worth noting this from the outset, since if this is true in 2022 it stands to reason it was also true 45 years ago when Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis made his notorious Jaws knock-off Orca. It emphasises just how ridiculous this film – directed by Michael Anderson and written by Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati – really is. It is a nonsense at the most basic level, and ripe for mockery. Some movie viewers enjoy films that are described as ‘so bad it’s good’. While I cannot admit to going quite that far, I do have a healthy affection for films that are aggressively ridiculous. The technique and craft in Orca are actually reasonably good for the late 1970s, but in terms of how the titular killer whale is presented and characterised this is a ham-fisted and ironic delight.

Irish-Canadian boat captain Nolan (a visibly soused Richard Harris) captures sea life for the aquarium, and after a hunt to capture a great white shark is foiled by a roaming pod of orca he redirects his mission to capture a killer whale instead. The attempt goes terribly wrong: a pregnant orca is accidentally killed, leaving its mate to target Nolan on a crusade for reprisal.

It took Jaws three sequels to hit on the egregious concept of an ocean predator tracking down a human being to take revenge. De Laurentiis nails it on the first try. Orca (sometimes released as Orca the Killer Whale) is charmingly stupid, and unremittingly silly. It is clearly shooting for a Moby Dick-style tale of vengeful obsession, but anthropomorphises its titular menace to such a degree that it comes across less as a frightening monster and more like the protagonist. We see it frolic with its mate. It literally pokes its head above the water to scream in horror as that mate is gutted and a foetus bounces across the boat’s deck. It calculates its revenge. It holds a grudge. It stalks Nolan with a supernatural awareness of where he is and where he is going. It understands civil engineering and plumbing. When the shark in Jaws lurks around Amity Island eating tourists, it is because it is territorial and hungry. The star of Orca is Liam Neeson in cetacean form: it has certain skills, it will find Richard Harris, and it will kill him. This is first-degree murder in dolphin form.

The key to watching Orca is acknowledging that the killer whale is the hero. Just as Friday the 13th numerous sequels ride and fall on the understanding that Jason Voorhees has a point – those sex-obsessed teenagers really are too irritating to live – so Orca relies on taking the killer whale’s side. Frankly, from the manner in which Michael Anderson directs the creature with a combination of live orcas, models, and puppets, there is not really any other option available.

Richard Harris plays Nolan boldly with a clear understanding of how weakly he has been written. Charlotte Rampling does a more measured job with marine biologist Rachel Bedford, but she’s working without much support from the script. It is always nice to see Will Sampson as Umilak: best known as the Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), here he serves to give the story an intriguing frisson of Canadian first people’s folklore and spiritual belief. It – and a small town full of superstitious locals – is not exploited anywhere near as well as it should.

Orca is dumb, and it is terrible, but it is a fun kind of dumb. It is a weirdly enjoyable type of terrible. There is comedy gold buried in this cesspit.

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